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The face of the other is the meaning of Christmas

The preface to “Totality and Infinity” by Emmanuel Levinas begins with this paradox: “Everyone will readily agree that it is of the highest importance to know whether we are duped by morality.”

Levinas tells us that war is the derision of morality. And for this reason, the only viable conclusion is that “the true life is absent.” For how can there be meaning to the things that we do when the desire to do good is tainted with the hidden motive of self-gratification? The ego is that image of a conqueror whose exploits have been glorified. What begins as a search for meaning now seems to end up in that empty return.

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In the real world, this is the kind of abstraction that young people bear witness to, enamored of their set of well-defined and lofty goals, of doing something great for humanity, only to be crushed by the folly of their own ambitions.

Levinas reminds us that the responsibility for the other is a movement from “a home that we inhabit,” toward that place which is “an alien outside-of-oneself, toward a yonder.” But who is the other? In asking this question, the self is already tempted to give its own response, eager to categorize the other on a subjective basis, in the same manner that most of us would willingly justify the mistake of a man, only because he is a deified hero. Does it not but make us an accomplice to the crimes he has committed, without remorse, against the powerless?

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Levinas says that universal thought is an “I think,” in the same manner that power has become an “I rule,” an “I conquer,” and, in the end, an “I am I.” Thus, in the face of a society that is without mercy, “the world out there is foreign and hostile.” We reason out that the children in the margins are not our children, that we do not have a moral obligation to them. To our mind, we make the explanation that these children suffer because there are people who are irresponsible. The “I” in this

respect automatically absolves itself even before it is accused of any crime.

For Levinas, this is what is meant by totality. In the ego’s totalizing gaze, the other is simply an object before one—cold, faceless, like a stone that one cannot love.

Leovino Ma. Garcia explains that in the thought of Levinas, the term “totality” refers to “a fundamental perspective” in which the self is at the center. “Totalization, when applied to people, becomes tyranny,” Garcia says. He says the prime example of this is the superiority of the Western way of life. This hegemonic relationship has resulted in the abuse, exploitation and manipulation of human beings in the margins of society. The present social order, in this regard, is nothing but an egology.

Our own society is guilty of this egology. In our model of this social order, the other is the orphan at our house’s doorstep, or the mendicant child on the street, hungry and without hope. The other is anywhere and everywhere. The other is also that silent scream of the unborn in the middle of an eerie night. The other is this or that human being, the neglected and forsaken, and all those whose future has been stolen by the callous ways of men.

But how can this be when as humans, our freedom is the sole basis, to use the words of John Kavanaugh, “of our knowing and loving powers”? Perhaps there can only be one explanation: The “I” is allergic to the other. In this life, we sometimes spend our waking moments wanting to be what we are not. The self actually hates its sameness, and so it cannot help but assume a representation or image of what it is not, only to find out later how its own self-serving ways reduce it into nothing—a wallflower.

For Levinas, the face is “the concrete expression of mortality.” Garcia, in explaining the meaning of alterity, writes that “the other is primarily experienced as one who addresses me,” and that is, “as a face who looks at me and speaks to me.” This relation then between the “I” and the other is ethical. Thus, the face-to-face encounter is simultaneously “a moral demand and a plea.” Garcia says that it is the “resistance of what has no resistance—the ethical resistance.” Finally, for Levinas, “the face is not only resistance but an extreme vulnerability.”

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Christ is the face of the other. Christ is that face who suffers. And the true meaning of Christmas, above all else, reminds us of the face, of the suffering, of the other—the poor worker, the homeless, the widow, and the destitute. When the person that I am recognizes this, the act of giving becomes sincere. In my act of kindness, I make concrete my infinite responsibility for the other.

Garcia explains, beautifully: “An experience of recognition must precede the denial of the other.” This denial, according to him, is the very foundation of violence. The face of every hungry child, in the midst of abundance, is an admonition: “Thou shall not kill.”

Christopher Ryan Maboloc is assistant professor of philosophy at Ateneo de Davao University. He holds a master’s degree in applied ethics from Linkoping University in Sweden and is the founding president of the Social Ethics Society Inc.

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TAGS: Christmas, Commentary, egology, Emmanuel Levinas, Jesus Christ, kindness, Society
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